Lemma PC Review
Lemma is a recently released first-person parkour game that has a rather inspiring development story. The free-running indie title was created by just a single person, Evan Todd; who started the project several years ago whilst attending university. Since then, it became a side project as Evan left university to get a job. Although, he kept working hard on it when he could, even managing to keep it alive after a failed Kickstarter campaign and through perseverance eventually successfully released it through Steam Greenlight. All of this was made possible simply because of his own hard work and dedication, which perfectly matches the motto of his very interesting game design and development website/blog – ‘Always be creating’.
Unfortunately, as with all games in this, one of the more under-appreciated genres, there is simply no avoiding touching on one of my favourite PS3 titles – Mirror’s Edge. Except if you’ve actually played Lemma. It becomes almost instantly apparent how very little the two have in common. For example, Mirror’s Edge primarily focuses on reaching the end of each stage as fast as possible whilst taking out anybody in your path, whereas Lemma is about having the player explorer larger areas of terrain for the most part, with absolutely no means of self defence against the threatening surroundings (unless you count legging it like a mad-man).
The plot starts out with the player being left in the dark, as the protagonist slowly tries to piece together where she is and how she got there by texting (don’t forget development started in 2010) her friend, Mark; the one responsible for creating this alternate reality, Lemma, in which you find yourself. More information about Mark’s scientific and mathematical shenanigans, as well as more of the protagonist’s backstory is uncovered by finding notes that are scattered around each level. As are orbs, although I was never too sure of their purpose except to have something else to explore for. This continues for some time, whilst the world around you grows to be more self aware and hostile, until you find Mark and discover a means of escape. This is where the a huge set of areas open up for the player to explore, in search of more friends that might be trapped along with you. Apparently what you do from that point on will also affect the outcome of the story, but I never managed to finish the game myself, more on that later.
To traverse the world, Joan, the main character, can run up and across walls, jump, slide, and pull herself up onto ledges. Of course you can also combine these techniques to manoeuvre up just about any structure you please such as wall run, jump, wall run, jump, slide to avoid fall damage, vertical wall run, jump, spin the camera to face forward as that is not automatic, and finally grab the platform above you. Pretty simple. Well, as it turns out, it is more complicated than that. For some reason, after about 20 minutes of gameplay, walls start to form from nothing when Joan runs across them, and even when she slides along the ground. This becomes a core mechanic as some puzzles require that particular sections of the stage be connected to others. Although there seems to be some arbitrary limit to how long a platform can be extended by sliding, which caused me many deaths as I tried to slide on the edge of a platform, expecting to be held up by the newly created brickwork that was rushing up to meet me, only to find I had reached the limit and saw Joan tumble off to her demise.
In Mirror’s Edge it was very simple to get around the world, as long as you could think and execute fast enough, but that isn’t the case with Lemma and I think I’ve discovered why. You see, the city in Mirror’s Edge is made up of mostly flat, perpendicular, and perfectly cut obstacles. This made sure that you don’t need to worry about jumping at wrong angles away from where you want to be. Lemma’s world does cause this issue though, as many most structures face each other at strange angles. Also, the ledges of platforms have pieces broken off for aesthetic reasons, but that forces unnatural and strange movements from the player and animations from the character as Joan attempts to pull herself up onto a 1 voxel wide ledge and then slides back and forth until she finally makes it to the top of the platform. It simply doesn’t flow like it should, it’s jagged.
There are also many puzzle elements in Lemma, none of which even try to hint to the player what they are supposed to be doing. For the most part this was fine, but as the world started to open up it became increasingly confusing to keep your sense of direction or realise that there is a puzzle you’re meant to be solving. I understand that it’s meant to be a game about exploration and adventure but the problem is that the world is so barren that unless you can see your goal clearly, it gets pretty boring fast. Running around in circles is fine there are other interactions you can make with the world, things to avoid or fight, or just anything else that you can focus on until you figure out the big picture, but there’s nothing like that here.
Out of the whole game, the most fun I had was definitely trying to beat the time scores on the challenge levels. Attempting to map out the fastest route possible and reseting again and again in hope of that perfect run is exhilarating, much like how I feel when playing something like Super Meat Boy or Trackmania. Unfortunately for me, the scoreboards were not working when I was playing so I couldn’t compare myself with anyone online. In retrospect, that may have been a good thing, or I could have spent an entire week just trying to one-up my closest competitors.
Interestingly enough Lemma is also said to support the Oculus Rift, which I’m lucky enough to own. So I plugged everything in, set it all up, but couldn’t find any settings in the game to allow this. That’s okay, there are alternate pieces of software that can help with this kind of stuff, such as TriDef3D, but either the game simply looks bad in the Rift or it wasn’t implemented correctly because I began to feel nauseous after mere seconds. I simply couldn’t play it. The Oculus Rift can be disorienting after a while but this was almost an instantaneous reaction, I had to really power through but still couldn’t last long enough even then.
After playing my fair share of Lemma I still never managed to complete it for one reason – I kept getting stuck. Twice I had to restart the game from scratch because Joan somehow lost the ability to jump, which confused me for ages as I tried to reset my keys, move through the world without this ability and re-load several times. Nada. So I started for a third time, and decided not to go to the area that seems to be the root cause of the issue. I got much further, unravelled more of the story and just as I was at my peak, saw an orb in the distance. It was pretty out of the way but I knew I could make it if I could get a nice wall run from as high as possible to cross the ravine between us. Yes! I made it! Now to get back, oh, I can’t. Can I fall down in to the water below? Nope, too high. Can I create an extended reach by sliding and making the perfect jump. Not even close. So that was it. I couldn’t restart again, it was too much.
Still, the title is impressive to have been developed by a single person, who learnt the hard way about many video game design choices. It just didn’t captivate me gameplay wise, although I’m rather interested in seeing how the story closes out. Lemma certainly looks and sounds impressive with all kinds of different looking terrain, rainfall, brilliant lighting, animations of walls being willed into existence, and a soothing soundtrack to keep you going, until you’re panicked into running for you life as strange noises interrupt the peaceful world and you’re chased by beings of unknown origin that I can only compare to the black smoke from ‘Lost’, of course. If you really like puzzles and parkour mechanics, check this one out, otherwise you might not find what you’re looking for.